Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Land of Journalists

            The president of the United States has taken the additional step of calling journalists “sick people” who “don’t like our country.” He has continued to use the term “fake news” to describe the reporting being done about him. He is encouraging supporters to turn their backs on American journalism as we know it.

            This is important to note, and important to refute, no matter what one’s political views might be.

            The role that journalism has played in American history is profound and in many ways as important as the role of government itself. Strong investigative reporting has repeatedly led the government to make critical changes that benefit the American public – at the federal, state and local levels. We would be nowhere near the country we are today without the work of our most skilled reporters.

            There are several biased news media outlets in existence today, especially on TV and on the internet. There also are several examples of fictional news, particularly from the entrepreneurs who are crafting false stories online in order to gain income from the ads sold on their much-read and much-shared websites. These businessmen know that their false, highly partisan stories will be retweeted and shared without many folks checking the facts. This is the true “fake news,” and it’s being created by people with no journalism background.

            Many of our American reporters are covering the president extensively, because he has pledged to be a disrupter and because he is challenging the expectations and norms of presidential behavior and policy at nearly every turn. This degree of change requires intense news media coverage, as extreme changes to our government and country must be watched closely. That’s not a criticism of the president; it’s merely a cornerstone of the checks and balances that journalists provide.

            This president knows better than any before him that our news media landscape is changing quickly. Many of us don’t read hard-copy newspapers or watch the network news at 6 p.m. anymore. Millions of Americans get their news from social media outlets that didn’t exist a dozen years ago. From memes to tweets to Snapchat filters, our president mastered the use of social media long ago. He would prefer to communicate with Americans directly, without using traditional media at all.

            But that’s just not how it works in a democracy. We need well-trained reporters to cover the stories that are out there, and to use all forms of media to relay those stories. We can’t rely on our government officials to be both news makers and news providers. That’s how dictatorships form.

            Journalism is hard, hard work. It doesn’t pay enough, and the hours can be long and trying. The last thing a good, young reporter needs right now is the president calling him or her “sick” and questioning that reporter’s loyalty to America. This endangers the physical safety of our reporters, and also raises the possibility that they will call it a day and leave the profession in the hands of less-experienced journalists. Our news media companies have suffered enough with layoffs and newspaper closings; we need to hang on to all the good journalism we can get.

            This week, I read a nonfiction book titled The Boys in the Bunkhouse, written by Dan Barry and published last year. The book chronicles a group of developmentally disabled men who were hired by a turkey-processing company and given a home and job in exchange for committing their lives to the turkey company. In the end, these men were cheated of money, given unhealthy living and working conditions and even physically abused on the job. Government agencies passed the buck on this for years, before a Des Moines Register reporter got wind of a group of men in Iowa who were living in an old schoolhouse and experiencing these conditions. The reporter’s work led to immediate government action and a new life for these men.

            Barry turned this story into a book that would make John Steinbeck proud. When he’s not writing books, Barry is a columnist for The New York Times, and he chronicles the often-untold stories of ordinary Americans. The president calls Barry’s employer a “failing” newspaper. But in addition to recent financial successes, the Times and so many news-media outlets are not failing at all. They’re making the tough phone calls, heading to the courthouse, and hitting the road in search of the next story.

             Dan Barry’s Times column, by the way, is titled “This Land” – as in the first two words of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, the most beautiful tune ever written about America. Barry and his colleagues are all out there, Mr. President, doing the work we need them to do. They’ve got their reporting pads, recorders and laptops in hand, and they’re gathering the stories that inform us all, from California to the New York island.     

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